When I embarked on my three month trip to Romania, I had but one tourist goal…to visit Dracula’s Castle. Little did I know that my traveling opportunities would be very limited and for some time, I was at risk of not meeting even that one goal. However, with time running out in the fourth quarter, my opening emerged and I rushed through it and let me tell you…it was definitely a touchdown.
After a quick two plus hour train trip from Constanta to Bucharest, I spent an evening and a day in this impressive capital city. Very, very quickly, the Communist influence is seen in the architecture of the city. The high density dormitory style housing neighborhoods as some historians describe it, can be seen everywhere. What they lack in flair and creativity, they gain in functionality and strength. A quick look at the Palace of the Parliament will attest to that. The Parliament building is known for being the largest administrative building in the world. It’s also the heaviest at over four billion kilograms if you can believe that. My taxi driver told me that there were fifteen floors below the ground.
Following the overthrow of communism in 1989, the country remains in a state of transition. I found the people with whom I visited to be very open and honest. My impression was that the younger adults have great excitement about the possibilities that exist, but very frustrated with the pace of change. On the other hand, some of the older adults that I talked to waxed nostalgic about the old days of communism when everyone was assigned a job and an apartment. It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds for this wonderful country.
Saturday morning, I was met by my tour guide and new friend, Lucian. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. I loved his high energy and optimism. He spoke with excitement about his wife, their home and their future. He had a vision of advancing in his career and achieving greater levels of success beyond what he has already achieved. We headed north to the Carpathian Mountains. We passed families on horse drawn carts. Most are Romanis, Roms, Gypsies. Oh what difficult lives they must lead. Romania is a developing country and many people live difficult lives. I have experienced most of them to be very honest and kind.
Driving along the mountains and through small ski towns reminded me of Colorado back in the 60s. Many of the roads had potholes from the high volume traffic during those snow-packed winter days. Corporate commercialism hasn’t moved in yet. so there is not a lot of glitz and glamour or large hotels, many family run restaurants and businesses. After several hours, we arrived at our first stop, Peles Castle.
Stepping out of the vehicle, breathing the fresh mountain air and gazing out at the mountain views was just what the doctor ordered…many of you know what I am talking about. After a nice cup of Americana Caffe, it was off to the castle.
Peles Castle was built in the late 1800s under the direction of King Carol I. It is the first castle to enjoy the benefits of locally produced electricity as an electric plant was also built on the premises. It is located north of the city of Sinaia. Beautiful gardens, statues, a hunting lodge and Royal Stables are also available on the grounds. Because it is one of the newer castles in Europe, it is absolutely magnificent, well-preserved with all original contents from furniture to art to fabrics. The woodwork in the castle is stunning. The marble and stain glass is breathtaking. Spiral staircases and secret passageways are abundant. Of all of the castles I’ve had the privilege to visit, Peles Castle is one of the most impressive. The interior is unmatched.
After visiting Peles Castle, it was difficult to imagine another castle so brilliant, but, we were on our way to accomplish my primary Romanian touristic goal…Dracula’s Castle. On the way, Lucian stopped at one of his favorite Romanian lodge/restaurants where I enjoyed one of my favorite Romanian dishes…Tochitura, a pork stew-like dish in savory tomato sauce served with mamaliga, a corn, grits-like dish topped with egg and cheese. After all, we all know that everything is better with an egg on it. After much dialogue with Lucian about Romanian tradition, he convinced me that a small sampling of palinka, plum brandy preceded each meal as a way to stoke the appetite. As many of you know, my appetite does not need much stoking. After a great meal, it was back on the road, through the mountains to Dracula’s Castle. Driving through the Carpathian’s, not to be confused with the Kardashians, we encountered many narrow roads, hairpin curves and side roads winding up the mountains.
Seeing the narrow dirt roads snaking up the mountains triggered some neurons that haven’t been fired in quite a while. I recalled as a child one Saturday evening, watching a black and white movie about Dracula. I remembered it scaring the bejabbers out of me. As we climbed the mountain, I began to wonder…maybe vampires are real…I had this strange feeling that my maxillary canine teeth, my pointy teeth, were hyper-erupting. Nooo, that couldn’t be…could it? Anyway, while internally I was pondering the possibilities, we arrived at Dracula’s Castle, otherwise known as Bran Castle. Bran Castle was originally built as a fortress protecting Transylvania’s border with Wallachia. Most of the original contents of the castle has been removed so it is not nearly as impressive as Peles Castle, however, Bran Castle was built in 1377 as compared to Peles Castle which was built in the late 1800s. Walking to the top of the secret passageway from the first floor to the third floor was a bit eery as the walls squeezed in on the climber but the payoff was a beautiful view of the surrounding grounds. I have to admit, after a few minutes in the castle, I was beginning to crave a very rare hamburger. Down below, there were many booths with merchants selling Dracula trinkets as well as other Romanian arts and crafts. Check that goal off of the list…next we headed to Brasov…
Brasov is a mountain community in the southern Carpathian’s. It’s located near Bran Castle. Archaeologists date human existence in the Brasov area at around 9000 B.C. In the 1100s, Hungarians invited Germans and others to develop the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. Brasov has strong German influences. It almost felt like I was walking around a German town with it’s cathedral (The Black Church) and spacious town square. It is called the Black Church as a result of a fire that turned everything on the inside and outside of the church black. Walking leisurely around Brasov and enjoying the afternoon was a perfect way to culminate an extraordinary day in Romania. There was an air of stress free living in Brasov and it was a great place to relax before the trip back to Bucharest. A quirky fact is that one of the narrowest streets in Europe is located in Brasov..Strada Sforii. It is between 44 and 53 inches wide. It is known as a meeting point in the city, but I imagine not the place to walk hand in hand with the one you love.
The drive back to Bucharest was uneventful and filled with great conversation. I wish Lucian the best of futures as he makes his way in Romania. The evening was restful and I woke up refreshed and ready to finish seeing Bucharest and boarding the train back to Constanta. A kind, older taxi driver showed me around Bucharest and was patient as I took pictures of the sites. I’ll never forget a moment when we were stopped at a stop light next to a church. Playing loudly over a speaker system was some beautiful classic religious music, meanwhile inside our taxi, the driver was playing Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. The two sets of music somehow seemed to go together and we both looked at each other and laughed.
If you get the chance one day to visit eastern Europe, keep Romania in mind. I wish I had time to see more. One thing is for sure and that is the people are wonderful and kind and enjoy visiting with travelers. My teeth feel fine, my canines are normal and I’m pretty sure there are no vampires…I think…
Until next time…